Monday, December 10, 2012

Kitchen chemistry

From April 19, 2008

“Has trouble following directions” was a comment found on some of my earliest report cards. I blame my overactive imagination and tendency to daydream more than the my sometimes contrary nature. When the situation calls for it, I can follow directions, though I don’t like being told what to do and have a tendency to dig in my heels in certain situations.
When it comes to cooking, it is very rare for me to follow recipe directions to a “T.” If I’m cooking something new, I look up recipes for it in multiple cookbooks or on the Internet, and then cobble together a recipe of my own. I’m the kitchen equivalent of a mad scientist testing a new formula, but instead of a lab coat, I sport an apron. Some experiments yield success, and others are abject failures.
The only recipes I don’t fiddle with are ones that I already know produce excellent results, like the caramel brownies recipe from the mother of my childhood best friend, or any recipe from my grandmother.
While I love to cook and try new things, the hustle and bustle of everyday life doesn’t leave a lot of time to experiment, and the limited counter space in my kitchen doesn’t give me a lot of room to maneuver.
In December, I first tried an Italian Cream Cake made by The Cheesecake Factory for a warehouse store. The combination of delicate cake and rich marscapone cheese filling was divine. I sampled the cake again in late January and was inspired to try to make it on my own.
My cookbook shelf in the kitchen overflows with books and recipes I’ve snipped out over the years that I wanted to try. Most have yet to be tested or tampered with, but I recently came across a recipe for “Lemon Tiramisu Cake” that looked similar to the Italian Cream Cake. I decided to whip it up.
It was a great opportunity to use my copper mixing bowl, a birthday gift from my parents after I watched “Good Eats” on the Food Network. Alton Brown is a fun source for cooking advice, and copper bowls are supposed to great for beating egg whites. As the daughter of a former copper mining engineer, I tend to favor anything made of copper.
Following Brown’s advice to use three bowls to separate eggs, I soon had cracked the six eggs the recipe called for. After allowing the eggs to come to room temperature, I poured the whites into the copper bowl with a pinch of salt and a bit of cream of tartar and broke out the hand mixer. Gradually adding sugar, I soon had a bowl full of glossy peaks that reminded me of winter snowdrifts in my backyard on a sunny day.
The yolks, vanilla extract and flour were folded into the meringue. The recipe also called for lemon extract, but I don’t keep any in the house, as my inner food snob turns up her nose at artificial flavors. My spring-form pan, greased and lined with greased wax paper, was soon filled up with a light and luscious batter.
The cake rose beautifully, and I soon had it cooling on my wire rack while I worked on the filling, making it with marscapone cheese and lemon curd. The recipe also called for whipped cream and ricotta cheese, but I substituted light cream cheese instead. It also called for a lot more powdered sugar than I was willing to use.
My parents raised me to appreciate the natural flavor of things, especially when it comes to whipped cream. We use sugar sparingly, preferring to taste the cream, not have it be something so sweet it makes your teeth hurt.
When the cake was cool, I cut it in half and slathered on the filling. The remaining lemon curd was used as a glaze for the top of the cake, and then I dusted the cake with powdered sugar.
The results were delicious, if not quite right just yet. Next time I’ll obey the recipe and use cake flour instead of just sifting all-purpose flour, and I’ll add some lemon zest to the batter. I think I’ll also reduce by half the number of yolks the recipe calls for. Perhaps instead I can use the yolks while trying to make lemon curd from scratch.
My usual preference for cake is chocolate, though I have made banana cake and love my mother’s oatmeal cake. Still, there is something delightful about this recipe with its cheesecake-like filling. It fits the season, the perfect cake for spring, light and delicate with a rich, lemony filling.

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